What can be said. . .

October 24, 2010

. . . about NPR’s firing of Juan Williams that isn’t immediately obvious? I’m not sure, but I’m going to try.

First, to be honest, I simply can’t listen to NPR. Oddly, I can read an editorial by Paul Krugman, but I can’t get past a minute or two of NPR before I turn it off in frustration. Until recently I haven’t had an explanation for this, but, perhaps, I have now.
Reading an editorial is a personal thing. When reading it I don’t think of all the other people reading it who may be swayed by it. Secondly, editorials are written. You can go back, reread them, find the flaws (or virtues) in the arguments, respond to them.
Broadcast media are not personal. It’s impossible for me to not think of all the other people being influenced by them. And there is for all intents and purposes no record. One can be as subtly (or overtly) biased as he or she wishes. An expressed thought creates an impression which then can not be checked. But the impression remains. I always want to rebut just about everything I hear on NPR, but the medium doesn’t really allow for that.
That and the idea of the Federal Government supporting a news outlet directed at Americans strikes me as antithetical to a Democratic system.
Nothing original in all that.
But in reading about this story,I have come across a phrase that describes an idea worthy of exploration: “Preference Cascade.”
A preference cascade is created when a people who have been conditioned to behave in a way that contradicts their own beliefs realize that others feel the same way which frees them. This is how people like Chris Christie can gain popular support (so far) for taking positions in places where such ideas would seem inhospitable. Another one to watch for the same reason is Tom Pawlenty.
George Will had a take on that today: http://www.freedompolitics.com/articles/pawlenty-2100-minnesota-state.html This paragraph sums up Will’s belief that today’s politics is shaped by echoes from the past as well as why Pawlenty may be appealing to Republicans and Independents in 2012.
“Settled by many Scandinavians and Germans who arrived with European, especially Bismarckian, notions of social democracy, Minnesota has furnished leaders of American liberalism — Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, Paul Wellstone. In the four decades before Pawlenty was elected governor in 2002, the average two-year increase in state spending was 21 percent. During his tenure, the average annual increase has been 2 percent. He says the current two-year budget cycle will be the first in 150 years in which spending will be cut in real, constant dollars.”
Back to preference cascade: I quote from the article referenced by the link below:
“I think one of the reasons the hardcore liberals who run NPR terminated Williams is their desire to abort a preference cascade.  This is one of the major reasons black conservatives, or those like Williams who express some appreciation for the conservative viewpoint, are treated so harshly by the left.  The Democrat Party, political vehicle of the Left, depends on nearly-absolute support from black voters for its very survival.  Second thoughts from such a captive constituency would be deadly.

As described by Glenn Reynolds in a classic 2002 essay, a preference cascade occurs when people trapped inside a manufactured consensus suddenly realize that many other people share their doubts.  Preference falsification works by making doubters feel isolated and alone.  In a totalitarian society, the dissenter fears that if he speaks up, his will be a lone voice, easily squashed by the enforcers of the regime.  When dissenters realize they are not alone, and the true strength of their numbers becomes apparent, “invincible” regimes vanish with astonishing speed.

The same effect can occur without brutal oppression, when fear of ostracism and ridicule cause people to suppress their own doubts. This kind of preference falsification requires strict discipline from the makers of opinion.  Since a free society makes it very easy for individuals to change their opinions, they must be prevented from even considering such a change.  Manufactured consensus is very fragile in a competitive arena of ideas, when there is no fearsome penalty for a “Fresh Air” listener who decides to switch over to Rush Limbaugh.”
It would be an interesting exercise to identify issues where Americans are saying or doing things that contradict their core beliefs. These are the sorts of thing leaders can tap into by giving people permission to express what they feel they can’t. It could be me, but I think Liberals stand to lose more should this inconsistency be resolved.

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